Review Summary: So broken, so golden.
Old Times Series (Part 3):
In the very first episode of this series, I mentioned that it is rather difficult for older musicians to resurrect their career, especially when they have already released some substandard records. In the case of alt-country pioneer Emmylou Harris
, it’s majorly the result of releasing rather substandard albums, but for the case of British rock singer Marianne Faithfull
, things are much more despairing. From unsuccessful recordings, drug addictions, homelessness, alcoholism to anorexia and laryngitis due to prolonged substance abuse and smoking(which resulted her “whisky-soaked” vocals), Faithfull’s career is already burned to ashes to say the least in the eyes of the public, even for the fact that she was only in her mid-30s back in 1979. To the pleasant surprise of many, however, Faithfull returned with the New Wave-oriented album that is Broken English
in that very year. Riddled with despair, paranoia and realism, Broken English
is an album that turned Faithfull from a sweet pop star to a legitimate rock songstress who is both mature and empowering, while the album itself being a masterpiece that is still influential, raw and perhaps relevant to this day.
The mid-tempo, opening title track is such an exemplary: Driven by a stream of disco bass-driven groove, and sprinkled with flashing synths and echoing guitars, it perfectly mirrors the terror and fear caused by the Germany terrorists that is the Baader-Meinhof Gang, as if Faithfull sang to the song’s inspiration Ulrike Meinhof, the co-founder of the group. Using her newfound weary voice, Faithfull asked Meinhof about the damage caused by the gang (“What are you fighting for？/It's not my security
”), as well as whether the war she raised was meaningful (“It's just an old war/Not even a cold war
”)and whether her sacrifice she made worth anything(“Lose your father, your husband/Your mother, your children/What are you dying for？
”), resulting in a tune that is chilling and thought-provoking. Faithfull would also deal with other issues that displays her successful step towards maturity that very few of her contemporaries achieved, from emptiness(“Guilt”), escaping responsibility (“What’s the Hurry”) to the danger of living in the moment (“Witches’ Song”) and drug-induced hopelessness (“Brain Drain”). As a result, the album showcased that Faithfull has successfully moved away from the slick, gentle vocal pop of her early years, and instead created an album that is both mature and edgy, expanding herself from a rather one-dimensional pop star to a misty singer who has rightfully secured her place in music.
While the majority of the album showcased her more concerned and feared side, that doesn’t mean she would not showcase her grittier and more daring side as well, evident in the rest of the album. The rendition of the John Lennon classic “Working Class Hero” is such proof, as the nervy bass and hi-hat slowly burn the song into a towering anthem that perhaps surpass Lennon’s own performance, with Faithfull’s raspy vocals and the slashing, luminous guitars serve as glowing warnings, as if she is making an alarming statement through its angry lyrics towards bullying, social marginalization, mass media, class and more; Throbbed with New Wave synths, the rendition Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show tune/her first hit in years (albeit a rather minor one) “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” is a tragic tale of the unhappy, titular housewife, as Faithfull documents the protagonist’s broken dreams(“As she lay there 'neath the covers, dreaming of a thousand lovers/‘Till the world turned to orange and the room went spinning round
”), boredom (“And there are, oh, so many ways/For her to spend the day”
) and subsequent attempted suicide (“The evening sun touched gently on the eyes of Lucy Jordan/On the roof top where she climbed
”), all presented with her worn yet wise voice, sculpting this already melancholic song into a sad yet irresistible tune; The profanely funny closer “Why’d Ya Do It” showcased that Faithfull is not afraid of experimenting with risqué subject matters (the amount of her use of the four-letter words has already spoken its volume) and unlikely music genres such as reggae, as she brashly spewed about the infidelity of her lover, why he prefers the STD-riddled mistress instead of her and thus drove her towards and jealousy, amid the disco-infused rhythms, swirling organs and twisted guitars, and ended the song with fiery guitar solo and saxophone coda, while Faithfull scornfully repeats the following words in her caustic voice, “Why’d ya do it, she said, why’d you do what you did”, creating a vulgarly hilarious yet similarly irresistible dance song. These songs just further exhibited that Faithfull is no longer the angelic songstress who mostly sang love songs while solidifying herself as an artist who is not afraid of discussing controversial topics.
A masterful farewell letter to the angelic pop star persona, Broken English
is Marianne Faithfull’s definitive statement, a smoky chanteuse with a weathered yet powerful voice, just like the cover suggested, while being an evidence for musicians that it is possible to shift their sonic palette even in their later career. From famed indie artists Jenny Hval, Julia Holter to soulful, creaky Americana of Lucinda Williams and the dark, mystical rock stars such as Nick Cave and PJ Harvey (both of which would collaborate with Faithfull in her later career), Faithfull would proved to be a vital and seminal figure in rock music, as she continues to create a lengthy and overall interesting catalog, from the smoky introspective Strange Weather
to her aerobics towards her songwriting that are Vagabond Ways
and the stunning Before The Poison
. It was Broken English
, however, that would be the definitive statement in her decade-long repertoire, 40 years after its initial release. Say goodbye to the Marianne Faithfull who was best known as the lover of The Rolling Stones’ frontman Mick Jagger and the angelic voiced songstress, say hello to the Marianne Faithfull who brings dark, personal songs to sublime heights with her now-signature whiskey-drenched voice, with Broken English
as her then-brand new business card.
Personal Rating: 4.85/5
Ballad of Lucy Jordan
Working Class Hero
Why’d Ya Do It